Sassy Southern Cooking with a French Twist


Thanksgiving Recipe Files – Part II

Gratin Goodness

The Thanksgiving countdown has begun, and hopefully you’re all taking time to smell the roses and savor the goodwill as you’re prepping your way toward the feast and the occasion.

I love gratins in general, and especially as an easy, delicious do-ahead side for Thanksgiving and other holiday meals. A kind of sassed up casserole, they’re hugely versatile and look as sophisticated as they taste homey and nurturing.

The recipe to follow (like the grits from a post earlier this week) is from my Southern Farmers Market Cookbook (Gibbs Smith, June 2008). Although when I created it, I thought of it as more of a late fall, early spring dish, in retrospect I think it’s splendid for Thanksgiving, too. Onions are glorious with turkey, and the acidic bite and creamy edge of gooey Brie should marry beautifully with a good pan gravy.

Fresh Sweet Onion and Tomato Gratin from Southern Farmers Market Cookbook (Gibbs Smith). Lovely photo by Rick McKee.

Fresh Sweet Onion and Tomato Gratin from Southern Farmers Market Cookbook (Gibbs Smith). Lovely photo by Rick McKee.

Fresh Sweet Onion and Tomato Gratin

(Serves 6 to 8)


For the gratin:

5 tablespoons unslated butter, divided

3 medium fresh sweet onions, trimmed, quartered and thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced

For the custard:

1 1/4 cups whole milk

2 eggs

4 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1/4 cup finely chopped sweet onion greens (from tops of onions or substitute scallions)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the topping:

1 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs

Zest of 1 lemon

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Six (1-inch long) slices Brie

Putting it together:

Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Heat 3 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions, and then season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until softened, about 12 to 15 minutes; set aside to cool. Coat a deep-dish 9-inch pie pan or gratin dish with remaining butter.

Meanwhile, prepare the custard. Combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until smooth; set aside. To prepare the topping, combine the breadcrumbs with the zest and seasonings in a small bowl.

To assemble, drain any excess liquid off the cooked onions. Distribute about one-third of the onions evenly on the bottom of the buttered pan. Top with a single layer of sliced tomatoes. Top with half of the remaining onions, another layer of tomato, and finish with remaining onions. If needed, season lightly with salt and pepper. Pour the custard mix over the entire surface of the layered onions and tomatoes. Top with cheese, spaced about 3 to 4 inches apart, along the top of the gratin. Finish with an even layer of the breadcrumb mixture.

Bake until golden and bubbly and the custard has set, about 35 to 40 minutes. If desired, finish under a hot broiler or a flame torch for an extra golden glow. Allow to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before slicing into wedges or squares.

NOTE: The gratin can be prepared ahead, covered and refrigerated, and then baked just before serving.

Southern Farmers Market Cookbook. Photos by Rick McKee.

Southern Farmers Market Cookbook. Photos by Rick McKee.

Bon appetit and Happy Thanksgiving!



Summertime and the Cooking is Easy

I think you’ll enjoy this post and recipe about easy summer cooking. This one features Opa! Greek Surprise Lamb Stuffed Tomatoes. Serve them cool and put the heat on the back burner.

Opa! Greek Surprise Lamb Stuffed Tomatoes

Opa! Greek Surprise Lamb Stuffed Tomatoes

Here’s the link:

Happy and cool summer cooking!




Time is Ripe for Tomatoes

As we all prepare to greet fall and her cooler air and promise of crisp apples and warming winter squash, don’t yet shut the door on tomatoes and the lingering taste of summer they can offer all year round.  At least in the Lowcountry, tomatoes will be coming in for a few more weeks. Here’s some ideas on how to put them to use from an excerpt from the tomato sauce chapter in my upcoming book on French Sauces (Gibbs Smith, Spring, 2013):

Les Sauces Tomates – Tomato Sauces

Though frequently associated with Italian cuisine, tomato (also called “pomme d’amour,” or love apple in French) sauces play a significant role in French sauce-making and cooking as well. One of the five mother sauces of French classical cooking, tomato sauces can serve as a garnish for fish or meat or tossed with pasta. The meaty juiciness of tomatoes make them the perfect conduit for a quick, fresh, naturally thickened sauce, often enhanced with wine, garlic, onion and fresh herbs.

When in season, fresh tomatoes are preferable to canned. Select firm, fragrant tomatoes. Plum varieties are considered ideal, but the many heirloom varieties available at farmers’ markets and groceries have magnificent flavor and color. When using canned, look for  whole peeled tomatoes, preferably the San Marzano Italian imports.

Tomatoes are often peeled and seeded prior to cooking or the seeds and skins are strained after cooking. Peeling and seeding fresh tomatoes is simple enough. Trim the stem base out with a paring knife and cut a little “X” into the top of the tomato. Place the tomato(es) in simmering, hot water for about 30 seconds, or until the “X” forms little, loose skin flaps. Remove them from the water and submerge in ice cold water for several seconds. The skin will literally peel right off a ripe tomato. To seed the tomatoes, cut them in half horizontally. Gently, using your fingertips, prod the seeds from the little seed pockets distributed throughout the tomato and discard. Don’t fret if you miss a few.

One of the many advantages of tomato sauces is that they freeze beautifulyy for up to three months. Make a few big batches now when tomatoes are still being harvested and freeze them in quantities you will use as fall and winter approach. Thaw, reheat and voila, an instant taste of summer on your plate even when winter winds howl.

Sauce Mariniere – Marinara Sauce

Beautiful, fresh marianara sauce prepared with late summer tomatoes and basil.


(Yield: 6 cups)

This lovely, light sauce is worth making over and over again. It simply sings with tomato flavor that goes just as well tossed with a bowl of spaghetti as it would to dress grill fish or roasted chicken. There are countless variations on the theme, as well. Ground beef,  turkey, pork, sausage, and bacon could be added early in the cooking process, or it could be finished with other vegetables including mushrooms, bell peppers and fennel. Add the fresh basil at the very end, just before serving. The sauce can be refrigerated for several days prior to using or frozen for up to three months.

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled, mashed and finely chopped

Pinch sea or kosher salt and ground black pepper

6 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

1/2 cup good quality red wine

1 1/2 cups chicken stock

4  sprigs each fresh rosemary, thyme, and oregano sprigs tied in a bundle with kitchen string

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

Pinch red chili pepper flakes

1/4 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped

Sea or kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, garlic, and pinch of salt and pepper. Stir to coat, reduce heat to medium low, and cook for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are softened and fragrant, but not browned. Add the tomatoes. Increase heat to medium high, stir, and cook another 3 minutes. Season with another pinch of salt and pepper. Add the wine, chicken stock, fresh herb bundle, sugar, and red chili pepper flakes. Bring up to a boil over high heat and reduce to a simmer. Cook over medium, medium-low heat for 45 minutes, or until reduced by about one-third. Remove herb bundle. Puree the sauce lightly in a blender or with a hand-held emulsion blender, about 30 pulses,  or until frothy and chunky-smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Add the basil just before serving. Serve hot.

Bon appetit!


Petite Packages, Huge Lowcountry Flavor

When I was a kid growing up in rural Massachusetts, Memorial Day meant summer, summer meant long vacations in Maine, and vacations in Maine meant long days clambering on rocky beaches and splashing in cool waters with my brothers, sister and the seven-strong O’Brien clan. Long, dreamy nights almost always sealed these happy days around a fire on the O’Brien’s beach where we would all gorge ourselves on lobster, corn on the cob, and clams. Some days, we’d tool around in our faithful Vista Cruiser station wagon and find one of the many road-side shacks serving up more of the same, with plenty of drawn “buttah” for generous dipping.

Back then, this budding epicurean and eventual chef, thought I had tasted the best possible food on the planet, and didn’t even dare to dream that I ever would come that close to that kind of taste and texture perfection ever again.  Fresh Maine lobster and clams, all salty, sweet and somewhere creamy, seemed (and still do) like some of God’s finest food creations – incomparable to just about anything else.

Fortunately, the road that lay ahead has been a long and tasty one, seasoned with long stints in Paris and rural Southern France and many delicious meals along the way.  Then, I arrived in Charleston, and that’s when an entirely new food love affair began. Its name is “shrimp.”

Spanking fresh Lowcountry shrimp fresh from the fryer and served dock-side.

Lowcountry shrimp is like that Maine lobster, utterly delicious and unlike any other you’ll find around the globe. Whether the spring and summer’s white species or fall’s brown species, they’re coddled by the pluff mud bottoms, creeks, marshes,  and tides that work in tandem to forge an impossibly distinct flavor that screams “Lowcountry.”   As far as I’m concerned, any other shrimp is an imposter.

I’ve had some darn good shrimp around these parts, but earlier this week, I was like that little kid in Maine all over again, beside myself with glee that I was savoring one of the best possible things to eat on the planet.

The setting and company probably had a lot to do with it. I was invited to join my friends Genny and Hugh on their creek-side dock in Hollywood, SC for a fish fry. I’d been there before, so I knew what I was in for – lots of laughs, delicious, salt-air breezes, and wide-open vistas of sparkling water and swaying marshes that seem to go on forever until they reach the sea. On past occasions, too, Hugh has proved himself to be one heck of a great cook. The last time was a Lowcountry boil of crabs pulled up right from the dock, kielbasa, and corn,  drained and poured out onto newspapers for all to enjoy.

This time, he outdid himself. The shrimp had been brought in that morning from a next door neighbor’s shrimp boat, netted from Lowcountry waters just a few miles from where we were sitting. Petite, pale pink jewels glimmered with freshness as he gave each a brief bath in buttermilk generously seasoned with black pepper and a bit of salt. After, each was tossed in the lightest cloak of seasoned flour. Then, the trick, as Hugh said, is to fry them in small batches (as in 4 or 5) so the oil temperature stays consistent. The second trick, Hugh said, as he poured the first batch out onto a paper towel, is to eat them hot from the fryer.

That part, I assure you, was not too difficult. After the first batch, the air already smelled sweetly of shrimp, and our stomachs were rumbling.  The first bite was the sweetest, yielding to the slightest, just right crunch of the flour crust and right into the heart of the matter – sweet, milky, briny Lowcountry shrimp. I think the three of us went through four or five batches before we even got to the catfish. With each bite, my gratitude for the glory of the Lowcountry and her shrimp bounty, as well as the blessing of good friends, grew.  And, so did my love for one of the world’s most perfect foods – fresh, fried Lowcountry shrimp. And, no “buttah” needed.


Although nothing really beats the simple deliciousness of Hugh’s fried shrimp, the following is a great, easy to prepare recipe from Southern Farmers Market Cookbook (Gibbs Smith, June 2009) by yours truly that is an effortless and delicious shrimp-stuffed tomato delight – perfect for any Memorial Day or upcoming summer celebration as tomatoes just start to come into peak season.

Tomatoes Stuffed with Orange-Basil Shrimp Salad

(Serves 4)

4 large, ripe tomatoes

4 cups raw, fresh Lowcountry shrimp, shells on

1 large shallot, finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice

4 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

8 fresh basil leaves, cut into ribbon-like strips

1 table grated orange zest (optional)

Prepare the tomatoes for stuffing. Cut out the remains of the stem, leaving a trim, even “incision.” Cut an X into the entire top. Fan the four sections open into a circle, to open up the tomato. Using a soup spoon, scoop out the excess flesh and seeds from the inside of the tomato, reserving for another use (as in a sauce, for example). Place the tomatoes on a plate and reserve.

Rinse the shrimp and drain in a colander. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the shrimp and reduce to a simmer. Cook until uniformly pale pink in color, or until the shrimp start to float to the top, about 1 – 2 minutes; remove from the heat and drain. Rinse with cold water until cool. Shell and devein the shrimp; chop coarsely.

Place the shrimp in a large bowl with all of the remaining ingredients except the basil and zest and stir to combine. Scoop a fourth of the salad and place it in the center of each prepared tomato. Form the salad into an even, round mound. Put on plate garnished with fresh basil leaves and a sprinkle of grated orange zest. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Welcome to summer….or at least Memorial Day!



Roasted Tomato and Garlic Tart with Fresh Marjoram and Fontina

We’re getting nice and close to the publication launch of Tart Love, so there will just be a few more tart “tempter” recipes on the blog before the book’s actual release on October 1. This delicious and delightfully easy tart makes tasty use of summer’s tomato bounty. Adapted from Tart Love – Sassy, Savory and Sweet (Gibbs Smith, Oct. 1, 2011, by Holly Herrick). Make it in good health and in good times!==========================

Reminiscent of a very elegant and light pizza, this beautiful square tart just dances with flavor. Two-toned tomatoes (I used yellow and red heirloom tomatoes I found at the farmers’ market) are roasted prior to going into the tart to condense their flavor and reduce their juices. This, combined with a protective and flavorful coating of roated garlic paste that forms the first layer of the tart, prevents the pastry from getting soggy. Fat wedges of fragrant, nutty fontina cheese seep Italian goodness into the tomatoes as the tart cooks. A jolt of fresh marjoram and a drizzle of olive oil at the finish, and you’ve got a beautiful dinner for four.

Photo by Helene Dujardin

Roasted Tomato and Garlic Tart with Fresh Marjoram and Fontina

(Serves 4)

Equipment needed: Parchment paper, pastry brush, roasting pan

One 6″ X 6″ square prepared puff pastry (I like Pepperidge Farm)

3 medium-sized fresh heirloom tomatoes – try and find 2 or 3 different colors, trimmed, halved and sliced into 1/8″ thickness

1 whole head garlic

Drizzle best-quality extra virgin olive oil

Drizzle best-quality aged balsamic vinegar

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Egg wash – 1 egg yolk mixed with a dash of salt and a teaspoon or two of water

1 small onion, peeled and sliced very fine

8 thick, 2″ long slices fontina cheese

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh marjoram (or substitute oregano)

Preheat oven to 400F.  Remove the puff pastry from the freezer and thaw according to manufacturer’s directions. Keeping the colors separate, arrange the tomato slices on a baking sheet in an individual layer. Season generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. Trim the top off the whole head of garlic and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Wrap tightly with aluminum foil and place on an open corner of the baking sheet. Place the tray in the center rack of the oven. Roast the tomatoes until they’ve just shriveled, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely to room temp. Keep the garlic in the oven another 15 minutes, or until it’s softened. Remove the foil and allow the garlic to cool. Drizzle the tomatoes lightly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. When the garlic’s cool enough to handle, remove the pulp by squeezing the garlic gently, as you would an orange, to extract the flesh from the individual clove casings. Discard the garlic casings and spread the roasted garlic flesh into a paste with the back of your chef’s knife. Cool completely to room temp.

Unfold the thawed, but still cool pastry and arrange on a roasting pan lined with parchment paper. Press gently to form its (already) square shape. Brush the entire square lightly with the egg wash using a pastry brush. Using the same brush, coat the pastry with a layer of garlic paste (you will be using all of it!) leaving a 1″ “naked” border all around the square. Arrange a single layer of the fresh onions and season generously with salt and pepper, following the lines of the bare border. Arrange the tomatoes on top, forming two parallel, vertical lines of two different colored tomatoes. Wedge four slices of fontina cheese evenly between the tomatoes on each of the two lines of tomatoes. Bake until crisp, brown, and bubbly, about 20 minutes. While the tart is still warm, drizzle with the fresh marjoram, salt and freshly ground pepper and a tiny touch of extra virgin olive oil. To serve, cut into four large squares and plate alongside a fresh, green salad. 




Cracking the Cookbook Code Retreat

Join me and blogger, chef and author Beckie Carrico Hemmerling March 29 – April 1, 2019 for Cracking the Cookbook Code, Writing, Cooking, Marketing, Photography + Wellness Retreat. Limited to only 8 people, we will have a blissful few days in a beautiful, relaxing setting with like-minded souls, eating delicious food and having a wonderful time. Click for details.

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